Flipping through the photographs of Jackie Thompson’s son, Geoffrey, the progression of a life unfolds. Captured in these pictures, Geoffrey goes from a young boy scout holding a trophy to a 30-year-old man holding his own son.
What’s not depicted are the memories in-between.
Like when Jackie Thompson, Geoffrey and his son used to spend time together — going to the park or watching TV.
Now, Jackie Thompson and her grandson look for red cardinals together.
“We look for cardinals, red cardinals. They say they’re visitors from Heaven and so we’re always looking for red cardinals,” Thompson said.
Geoffrey died by suicide a year and a half ago.
He was diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. He was also a beloved friend, father and son.
Geoffrey was an avid lover of music playing sax in high school and played soccer throughout high school, college and even at the professional level. There are photos of him at every stage of life documenting this.
There’s Geoffrey before he was a teenager, kneeling on a soccer field, adorned in cleats and shin guards. Then there’s a much older Geoffrey racing down the field.
“My favorite memory? Oh, I’ve got lots, lots of little ones,” Thompson said. “Not even the big ones, just knowing he was in the house and we’d have dinner together. I drove him places. Or [Geoffrey's son.] [He] was a big part of it. We did fun things together, go to the park, Akron Falls.”
Thompson helped Geoffrey raise his son because of his mental illness.
Geoffrey first exhibited signs of a mental health condition 16 years before he died, when he was 20 or 21. It was the summer of his eldest sister’s wedding.
Geoffrey falls within the vast majority of people struggling with mental health conditions. Half of all chronic mental illness starts by 14 and three-fourths start by 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Yeah, there may be signs, but they’re not big signs and then all of a sudden he had a mental breakdown,” Thompson said. “His first was that he ran down Transit with no clothes on, with just very short shorts on.”
The police arrested her son. The family recognized this as his first break and sent him to Erie County Medical Center.
Nearly one-third of individuals with severe mental illness, like bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, have their first contact with mental health treatment through an encounter with law enforcement, according to a study by the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“In no time at all he bounced back, but that’s typical,” Thompson said. “You can bounce back quickly, and then those repeated breaks — the more you get, the harder they are to get out of and get back to your normal routine.”
But, Geoffrey’s first break previewed a series of interactions with law enforcement and emergency rooms for 16 years before he died.
Over half of imprisoned Americans struggle with mental health, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But incarceration can be especially difficult for those with mental illness, causing severe psychological stress, according to a report by the National Research Council.
During his final interaction with the criminal justice system, Geoffrey was on probation. In the midst of an episode, he went to New York City, breaking the terms of his probation. He left Buffalo at 11 a.m., and by 8 p.m. was looking for a way home.
He couldn’t find a flight, so his parents paid a cab to drive more than six hours from New York City to Buffalo.
“The rest of the story is all in the courts. Geoffrey was having a psychosis, that’s why he left,” Thompson said. “I mean there was a doctor’s appointment that day at 9 o’clock. By 11 o’clock he was on a plane. It was kind of like a domino effect.”
He should have arrived in Buffalo by 3 a.m. the next day.
Geoffrey made it as far as Cortland. He tried to stop the cab, convinced the driver was going to harm him. The driver left after the police came and arrested him.
“The judge gave him no leverage even though everyone tried to step in and let them [the courts] know that he was getting treated — even his treatment team showed up,” Thompson said. “Geoffrey did everything right, but the meds stopped working and he was in a psychosis.”
Geoffrey and his family tried repeatedly to manage his illness. He and his treatment team met twice a month. He tried multiple combinations of medication.
Thompson said her son took anywhere from four to six different medications.
“You do an antipsychotic, you gotta do a mood stabilizer, you got to do an antidepressant, if necessary and then any others that would help make the right mix,” she said.
But, Geoffrey never found the right mix of medication and treatment in the 16 years of his struggle and he was sentenced to two years in prison for breaking his probation.
“The court said you left town — the rule is you leave town you go to prison. He went to prison and he was supposed to be there for two years,” Thompson said. “He made it...he was going to come home in 10 days.”
Thompson estimates her son weighed about 230-250 pounds when he entered prison.
“They didn’t treat him well in the system. I could talk about the system and what went on and if you can see a young man losing 100 pounds in what was it — 12 months? 16 months? And nobody identified it as a problem,” she said. “He was really skin and bone when he passed.”
Geoffrey was under the supervision of the Office of Mental Health, a special division at the prison that takes care of those with mental health conditions separate from the general population.
The staff for OMH comes Monday through Friday and leave at 4 p.m.
“What happens in the evening and on the weekends? Who watches? You get, I was told, the regular officers who would watch, but what do they know?” Thompson said.
Thompson’s son died by suicide on the weekend after the OMH staff left the prison with about a week left before his release.
“He lived a good life while he was here and I’m not mad at him at all, but I’m mad at the illness. What could’ve gone wrong did go wrong with my son,” Thompson said. “He worked really hard trying to get on the right road and the right path with myself and others, but it just didn’t work out for him.”
Geoffrey's son was 7 when his father died.
When he and his grandmother spend time together they look for red cardinals, hoping for a visit from Geoffrey.
But, it’s Thompson who watches her grandson grow up, taking photos of the progression of his life the way she took photos of her own son.
“He’s a big boy. He’s built like his father. He looks similar to Geoffrey and I think [he] has a kind heart just like Geoffrey did,” she said. “We talk about Geoffrey all the time.”
NAMI of Buffalo & Erie County hosts family support groups and educational classes. To learn more, click here. The organization operated on a volunteer basis and is looking for community members to join them.
Twelve-week Family-to-Family classes will start mid-September for Niagara Falls and West Seneca. This class helps families advocate for loved ones with mental illness. The class is free, and participants need to pre-register by calling 716-226-6264.
West Seneca: Classes start Monday, Sept. 16 from 6-6:30 p.m. for 12 consecutive Mondays at Ebenezer United Church of Christ.
Niagara Falls: Classes start Tuesday, Sept. 17 from 6-6:30 p.m. for 12 consecutive Tuesdays at the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline operates 24/7. The service is available to everyone, and all calls are confidential. 1–800–273–TALK (8255). Those who are deaf or hard of hearing can contact via TTY at 1–800–799–4889. Or call the local 24/7 crisis hotline at 716-834-3131.
Warning signs and factors that increase the likelihood of suicide
Suicide is rarely caused by a single factor and is often a combination of factors. Some are listed below. It’s important to remember that even if a few of the factors or warning signs are present, it does not mean suicide is inevitable.
- Substance or alcohol abuse
- Previous attempts at suicide/family history of suicide
- Childhood trauma/family violence, including physical and/or sexual abuse
- Individual saying/believing that he or she is a burden to others
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Family history of depression or other mental health disorders/substance abuse
- Giving away beloved possessions
- Saying goodbye to friends and family, putting affairs in order or making a will
- Having guns or other firearms in the home
- Being in prison or jail
- Exposure to someone else’s suicidal behavior, whether that’s a family member, peer or media figure
- Medical illness
- Being between the ages of 15-24 years or 60-plus years
What To Do If A loved One Exhibits These Warning Signs
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), a free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information and local resources.
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional